The musings of an empty nester


Years ago I wrote a piece about the start of the school year and the end of summer. I wrote there would be no more trips to the lake, no more marshmallow roasts in the middle of the horse field, no more nights falling asleep outside, watching the sky, hoping for shooting stars.

At that writing, my next-to-youngest was getting on the school bus for the first time with all the other kids. I was glad to be walking back from the bus stop with my infant son in my arms.

Those salad days of Deep Mommy Time wilted early. I remember reading to all of them on my bed, and the third eldest got up with her own book and left. She was eight.


The very eldest left for the summer to live with an aunt to baby sit young cousins. The second eldest become a computer wizard when it was hard to explain what “the Internet” was (“It’s like a virtual bulletin board, dad”).  Conversation became stilted as he disappeared into that new universe.

The only photos I have of my youngest child on the way to kindergarten are the back of his head and his little Green Bay Packers backpack.

They grew up to be wonderful people, but I have regrets. I guess every parent does. I lost my temper. Not often, but now I know the value of patience in a way I did not then. I did not hug and kiss them enough (this from my Italian husband, who is often puzzled by my Waspy ways.)

I gave the daughters a master’s-degree education in how to spot a bad guy and how to ditch him, but I could not fathom how to warn our sons about bad girls. That’s why one of them showed up here with a cocktail waitress who gave my husband the glad eye when she figured he was the money. And that’s why another one ditched a goddess/angel, and we can only pray he finds another one as good. We think, somehow, he pulled it off. We met The New One, and she’s very cool. I can’t know for sure, because I never learned how to make a boy open up about personal stuff.

I most regret that I tried to be “fair and balanced” when in the company of other parents who were too competitive, in my view. The hell with that. I should have honored the example of my grandmother, who made it plain that if you were hers, you were the best there is, and she’d wipe the floor with anyone who meant you harm.

Despite the courage and daring of my adventurous nestlings, and my self-doubt, we are a tight family unit. We are in constant touch. I rarely feel empty.

And yet I remember rocking the nursing baby to sleep alone in my room, listening to the night sounds of the rest of the household. Fed and bathed with home work done, they were contented and sleepy. They didn’t fight too much when it was bedtime, knowing we had Harry Potter waiting for us. God bless J.K. Rowling’s prolificacy.

I do “StoryTime” at our local library. My audience members are pre-schoolers. They love my choices, but I think their young mommies and teachers wonder why I bring beat-up, dog-eared and dog-chewed copies of Blueberries for Sal, Millions of Cats, Sheep in a Jeep, King Bidgood’s in the Bathtub, and Chicka Chicka Boom Boom, among many, many others.

They’ll find out why some day. In the meantime, their little charges climb on my lap and point to the pictures and chuckle at Sal and the bear. I rarely feel empty.

It’s not just books I cling to. I have the little cotton blankets that swaddled each child on the way home from the hospital. I have dried flower petals from the bouquets sent in congratulations. I have baby shoes, and first day of school clothes, and yes, that Green Bay Packer backpack. I have the first written words, art work, and whittled figures. There are handprints and footprints in various cement sidewalks. The artsy one carved her name in almost every bookcase. Their father taught them to paint, to lay tile, to lay brick, and to lay stone. Their handiwork is all over our property. I rarely feel empty.

I have time, now, to do the things I love. My life is very full. And yet, the other day, I drove past my friend Molly’s farm. Molly was the salt of the earth, and a loyal, dear, dear friend. She befriended me when others in my small town regarded me as just another suspect newcomer.

Molly and her husband were very successful farmers. Their products were in demand locally, and also in the finest food purveyors in Manhattan. Bloomingdale’s, Dean and DeLuca, Balducci’s.

And then Molly’s husband’s parents died.  It turns out they were bluebloods living in some elite enclave in another state. All the while Molly’s husband was mucking chicken, sheep and goat poop, he was really just trying to muck away memories of a lifestyle he did not want. And yet, when the inheritance came in, he swept Molly away with a promise that he’d never again smell like a billygoat, and she’d have everything her heart desired. I did not even get the chance to say goodbye.

I drove past their farm hundreds of times, experiencing a little pang each time.  So the other day I stopped. No one has stopped there in a decade. The driveway is overgrown. I walked through thigh-high brush to the farmhouse door. It swung open easily. What I saw inside took my breath away.

It was as though they had decided, while eating breakfast, to leave. The table was set. Everything they owned was still in the house.  Dishes, furniture, rugs, toys, books, notepads, farmer’s boots and coats and gloves. If one didn’t know better, it would seem they were abducted.

Everything was covered by a thick layer of dust, and cobwebs. That’s when the passage of time, the nevermore, the days gone by, hit me hard.

My connection to my children is ongoing and strong. But that golden time in my life is over. For good. I felt a bottomless emptiness watching dust motes settle, listening to the bees buzzing outside the broken window, loving that clematis vine.

I am so grateful to have had this in my life. My children. My mommy friends.

I could easily have missed it. None of my Manhattan friends opted to have children. My life in the city was a golden time, too. Back then, I couldn’t imagine anything better. But here we are.

A while ago, thirty hipsters from Brooklyn (my daughter being one of them) came to our place for a pig roast. They brought the pig, and the wine and beer. We provided the spit, the wood, the sides, and the pie.  We all sat up late in the night, trading stories about life in the city, and adventures out in the wide world.

I looked around at that house-full of happy human beings who related to me and my husband as just two more storytellers, with pieces of our lives to share. In a time when most of us don’t know what the world is coming to, I can dare to be hopeful, because those young ones are in the world. They will be in charge, and knowing how they skirted disaster, avoided arrest, rescued dear friends, found safe haven in a dangerous world, and risked it all and dared to love, I know they are good.

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